Wednesday, September 14, 2011

30 Fans in 30 Days: Andy & the Florida Panthers

As a lead-up to the new season, here at HockeyBroad we'll both be reviewing How Teams Spent Their Summer Vacation, and also profiling one fan from each team's fandom, covering 30 Teams In 30 Days. The teams will be profiled in order determined by their points standing last season, highest to lowest, with the exception of Chicago, which will be profiled last to coincide with the date of their Training Camp Festival.

Team 27 of 30: the Florida Panthers


Dale Tallon put together a lot of the pieces that eventually led to the 2010 championship Blackhawks team, so it was little surprise that after he signed on as new GM for the Florida Panthers last season, there was a lot of discussion about the team "blueprint" and changing the face of the franchise. It wasn't going to happen overnight, of course, but Tallon's arrival sparked the dawn of a new hockey era in southeast Florida.

The Panthers haven't been to the playoffs since 2000 and have only accomplished it three times in 17 seasons of team history. Their fan base one of the smaller ones in the NHL, but they're dedicated, and the owners have obviously gotten tired of extending the longest playoffs-free streak in NHL history. So this was a huge summer of change.

For a start, the Panthers will be bringing in Kevin Dineen as the new head coach. Dineen has a winning record in the AHL with the Portland Pirates (3 years as a Ducks affiliate, 3 years as a Sabres one), where he posted a 266-155-30-29 record over 6 seasons. He coached the last 3 AHL Rookie of the Year, and has coached at the AHL level players like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. He also comes from a hockey family - he played 20 seasons in the NHL; all four of his brothers (Gord, Peter, Shawn and Jerry) were all pro hockey players; and his father, Bill Dineen, also played and coached in the NHL. Coach Dineen will not only make an impact on this team as a whole, but will also undoubtedly draw more out of the players under his guidance.

On the players side, Dale Tallon started the roster shakeup before last season had even ended. A late season trade brought Jack Skille (as well as Hugh Jessiman and David Pacan) to Florida while sending Michael Frolik and goalie prospect Alexander Salak to the Blackhawks. Skille has not yet lived up to his potential - he was drafted 7th overall in the talented 2005 Draft (the same draft where Sidney Crosby went #1, and players drafted after Skille included Devin Setoguchi, Anze Kopitar, Marc Staal, and Keith Yandle). So far, the trade has been tilted in Chicago's favor, but he may yet be a case of "change of scenery does a whole lot of good".

One of the biggest surprises of the opening night of the 2011 Draft was the first round announcement that the Florida Panthers had traded with Chicago again: this time acquiring defenseman Brian Campbell in exchange for Rostislav Olesz. Campbell's $7M+/yr salary, with several years left on it, was considered unmovable by most, but Dale Tallon convinced Campbell about his vision for the future of the Panthers team. Once Campbell signed on, it opened the floodgates for a veritable flood of free agency signings starting July 1st.

By the time the dust cleared, the Panthers had rebuilt half their roster. Actually, they shipped out so many players and brought in so many new ones - the remainder of available slots will be filled from their prospects - that the team has been entirely recreated. The question is: how will they gel?

The Panthers are the new "Blackhawks South", taking the title from the former Atlanta Thrashers, with four ex-Blackhawks reunited: Brian Campbell, Jack Skille, Tomas Kopecky, and Kris Versteeg. Three of those players have a Stanley Cup ring. But the ex-Hawks aren't alone in playoff experience; there isn't a player among the "big nine" acquisitions that doesn't have at least one season worth of playoff experience, and plenty of NHL experience between them.

New to team - listed on current roster/team acquired from: Sean Bergenheim (TBL), Matt Bradley (WSH), Brian Campbell (CHI), Ryan Carter (CAR), Tomas Fleishman (COL), Marcel Goc (NSH), Ed Jovanovski (PHX), Tomas Kopecky (CHI), Jose Theodore (MN), Scottie Upshall (CBJ), Kris Versteeg (PHL)
Players who appeared in games for the team during the 2010-11 season that have been traded or not re-signed/(team now signed with): Bryan Allen (CAR), Byron Bitz (VAN), Niclas Bergfors (NSH), Steve Bernier, Mike Duco (VAN), Radek Dvorak (DAL), Michael Frolik (CHI), Chris Higgins (VAN), Bryan McCabe, Rostislav Olesz (CHI), Marty Reasoner (NYI), Patrick Rissmiller (COL), Alexander Salak (CHI), Sergei Samsonov, Cory Stillman (retired), Alexander Sulzer (VAN), Tomas Vokoun (WSH), Dennis Wideman (WSH), Clay Wilson (CGY).

By far, the biggest question for the Panthers is: How much chemistry do they have fresh out of the box? The roster is completely revamped, and the four "big" name players for Florida remaining from last season are David Booth, goalie Scott Clemmensen, Mike Santorelli, and Stephen Weiss.

Another big question facing the Panthers is who will be their new Captain. Ed Jovanovski would be a good bet: he was a rookie on the Panthers team that went deep in the playoffs in 1996. Making Jovanovski Captain would be fitting, bringing his career "full circle" with the Panthers. He has history with the team, he has a lot of playoff experience between his time with the Canucks and Coyotes, and it would be a good move. Stephen Weiss, starting his 10th season with the Panthers, would also be a good choice as one of the best-known players among the Panthers faithful, although he lacks the playoff experience. Prediction: Jovanovski wears the "C", with Weiss and Campbell as "A".

Despite all the questions, however, the newly-rebuilt Panthers have far more going for them than they have against them. They've gone from a bargain-basement team to a team loaded with proven performers who've bought into Tallon's vision for the future of the Panthers and have a lot to prove. Additionally, they've giving an excellent coach his entry into the NHL - and undoubtably, Dineen will get a great deal out of this team. The 2011-12 Panthers are out to make a big splash in the Eastern Conference.

* * *

For the Panthers, we talked with Andy, who can be found on Twitter at @Andy_Amstutz. He's been a Panthers fan for 10 years.

Let's talk about your fandom a bit.

I love the Panthers! A cool memory was meeting David Booth at St. Pete Times Forum in the stands during a pre-season match-up between the Panthers and Lightning.

Which player that your team signed/acquired this summer are you most excited to see take the ice this season?

That's a tough one! The Panthers have added basically a new team, but I'm excited to watch Matt Bradley this year.

Taking into consideration your team's performance last year/recently, and any player/personnel (coaches, GMs, ownership) changes made in the past few months, talk about your team in 2011-2012: How do you think they've improved (or made worse)?

The hiring of general manager, Dale Tallon, has added a lot of changes. The team has been completely dismantled and the Panthers are now arguably number 1 in the prospects pool. It's nice to have some optimism, after a decade of futility.

Players actually want to come to South Florida and work for a result and you can feel the excitement surrounding the new face of the Florida Panthers. From the hiring of head coach, Kevin Dineen, to the new roster, we are all just waiting for the season to begin.

Whether or not you think your team will make the playoffs, where do you predict your team will place within their conference?

8th in the Eastern Conference

What existing hockey rule would you change (and how) if you could?

I would remove the instigator penalty. I feel it takes away from the intensity that hockey has always been, and leads some players to believe there will be minimal consequences if they take a run at a player, or something along those lines.

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